Of course I didn’t see how social media could be an accelerant for bigotry

It took a few years after I first reviewed Windows XP for me to realize the enormous omission from my initial assessment of that operating system: It didn’t even include the word “security.” It feels like I’ve devoted much of my work since to making up for that shortfall.

I’ve had the same unpleasant realization over the past few years about social media. Just as my first look at XP showed no imagination about how an OS designed to run on trusted networks would fare on the open Internet, my early writing about social networks evidenced inadequate foresight about how they might help bigots to bond.

Consider, for instance, the Twitter explainer I wrote for the Post in 2008. I loved writing that almost exclusively as a series of 140-character-compliant paragraphs, and I think as prose it holds up well. But although Twitter was still figuring out the basic mechanics of @ mentions then, the piece reveals no consideration of how Twitter’s architecture might let bigoted trolls recruit like-minded people to scale up a Twitter mention’s compelled attention into a denial-of-service attack.

The evidence was there: A year before, writer Kathy Sierra had endured a hail of death threats for the crime of having two X chromosomes while expressing value judgments about technology. But my attention was elsewhere.

I can file away my naïveté about Windows security on not doing enough background research, but I can’t untangle my lack of imagination about social networks from having used them exclusively as a straight white man with an Italian (read: Catholic) last name. On every social network I’ve used–from Usenet newsgroups to Slashdot to the Post’s comments to Twitter and Facebook–I’ve had the unrequested benefit of not being routinely attacked for my gender, sexuality, race or religion.

But I never quite realized that until writing about Gamergate. I spent the day before that Yahoo Tech post ran locking down every important account and steeling myself for a toxic response online. Then nothing bad happened and nobody tried to destroy my critique by impeaching my identity. I can now confirm that white privilege is a hell of a drug.

Since then, we’ve had another unforeseen development: a president who has bragged about sexual assault, regularly evokes such anti-Semitic memes as “globalists”–a laundered code word for international Jewish financiers–and said neo-Nazis in Charlottesville last August included “very fine people.” Trump’s dog-whistling seems to have encouraged some bigots to crawl out from under their rocks and look for company.

Some have also been inspired to look for ways to kill people they see as “the other.” This bigotry boom has a growing body count–in C-ville last year, where I paid my respects at the memorial to Heather Heyer earlier this month, and today at a synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood. Last week’s pipe-bombing attempts could have added to that toll.

I’m sorry that I was asleep to so much of this before. I think I’m awake now, but I want you to tell me if you see otherwise.

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Recognize a bad-faith campaign to discredit a journalist when you see one

The latest target of Two Minutes Hate on the Internet is somebody unusual, in that it’s somebody I know. But the story here is manufactured outrage as usual.

Until Thursday, few people outside tech-journalism circles could have name-checked Sarah Jeong or described her Twitter presence. I’ve been following her since sometime in 2014, so I can: sarcastic and often bitterly so, expletive-laced, and grounded in a deep knowledge of how tech intersects culture and the law

That makes Jeong an essential read in my world, and also an amusing one–see her unpacking of the PETA’s monkey-selfie case. She’s also a student of how social networks fuel online harassment and wrote an excellent book about it, The Internet of Garbage, that led me to quote her in Yahoo Finance posts in 2015 and 2016.

Now Jeong is again experiencing the subject of her own research, thanks to a cut-and-paste screencap compilation quoting her saying such mean things about white people from 2013 to 2015 as “it’s kind of sick how much joy I get out of being cruel to old white men.”

Why 2014 tweets in 2018? The New York Times announced Wednesday that it had named Jeong to its editorial board. The creator of that image, who calls himself Garbage Human on Twitter, apparently saw a chance to bully the Times into hitting the Undo button on its hire–what’s happened to other young writers, some right-wing, hired by traditional media outlets.

So is Jeong a racist whom the NYT should dump? That argument is, as Jeong would put it, bullshit.

First: No, she isn’t racist. I have interacted with her, online and in person, more than enough to determine that, and I’ve yet to see any co-workers of her say otherwise. And yes, that insight trumps yours if you hadn’t heard of Jeong until yesterday. Seen in context–as you can, since she hasn’t deleted them–most of the tweets at stake are cranky jokes received as such by white friends. One’s a profane distillation of a multiple-tweet legal argument. Others look like her venting about the misogynistic, racist word vomit that can greet a woman or person of color on Twitter; I will not tone-police people in that position. 

Second, consider the sources. After Garbage Human, whose tweets show a fondness for InfoWars hoaxer Paul Joseph Watson, Jeong’s tweets got publicized by Gateway Pundit, a conspiracy-theory-spouting factory of lies. I first became acquainted with its dreck last January, when it wrongly named my friend Doris Truong as the Asian reporter taking pictures of Rex Tillerson’s notes at his confirmation hearing without bothering to ask her if she was even there.

These are not honest critics, and their arguments are no more founded in a belief in racial equality than GamerGate harassment was about ethics in gaming journalism. You don’t owe time to the talking points of a bad-faith actor, not when it’s based on a context-free sample of a handful of tweets out of 103,203 available.

I know this because I saw this strategy employed successfully against my then-Post co-worker Dave Weigel in 2010. That’s when the journalism-gossip site FishbowlDC and then the Daily Caller (both with a history of ginning up right-wing outrage, facts or context optional) published cranky e-mails about various politicians that Weigel had sent to a private mailing list. Post management did not have the spine to stand up for its new employee against this selective copy-and-paste hit job or the absurd theory behind it that reporters should never share opinions about the stuff they cover, and Weigel resigned.

Five years later, the Post hired Weigel back. He’s been kicking ass at the paper since.

I look forward to Jeong doing the same at the NYT, as it declined to take the bait. Its PR department defended their new hire while adding that it “does not condone” her earlier banter and including Jeong’s tweeted apology that “I deeply regret that I mimicked the language of my harassers.”

Jeong’s current employer until she starts at the Times, The Verge, took a stronger line in a post:

Online trolls and harassers want us, the Times, and other newsrooms to waste our time by debating their malicious agenda. They take tweets and other statements out of context because they want to disrupt us and harm individual reporters. The strategy is to divide and conquer by forcing newsrooms to disavow their colleagues one at a time. This is not a good-faith conversation; it’s intimidation.

Exactly.